NEEDHAM, WILLIAM HAYDEN, lawyer and politician; b. 9 Dec. 1810 at Fredericton, N.B., son of Mark D. Needham and his wife, a Miss Fraser of Inverness, Scotland; d. 29 Sept. 1874 at Woodstock, N.B.
William Hayden Needham’s father was widely known in Fredericton, both as a participant in municipal politics and as the city’s quaint old legislative librarian. William was educated at the Fredericton grammar school and at King’s College (University of New Brunswick), though he did not receive a degree. Instead, he turned to law and studied under George Frederick Street*. On 8 May 1832 Needham was admitted attorney and in 1834 he was called to the bar of New Brunswick. He practised in Woodstock, Fredericton, and for ten years in Saint John. On 20 Oct. 1835 in Saint John he married Mary Ann Gale. He settled permanently in Fredericton about 1853. Needham had a province-wide reputation as a lawyer of “much ability” and was, at one time, vice-president of the New Brunswick Bar Association.
Needham was rarely out of politics during his adult years. As a student in 1830 he had taken to the hustings in opposition to his Conservative patron, George Frederick Street; for this activity he was evicted from Street’s law office. While in Saint John he struggled for the reform of the city charter. “Almost unaided he fought his measure through, against all the old toryism of the day in and out of Council.” By 1850 “Billy” Needham was a popular hero, and in the election of that year, he and five other reformers were returned to the assembly for the Saint John district. A government reorganization in 1851 created a crisis among these reformers. Robert Duncan Wilmot* and John Hamilton Gray* accepted appointments to Sir Edmund Head*’s council. Needham, Samuel Leonard Tilley*, William Johnstone Ritchie*, and Charles Simonds* were indignant, and stated their determination to resign should Wilmot be returned to the house in the election necessitated by his becoming surveyor general. Wilmot’s success brought immediate resignations from Tilley, Ritchie, and Simonds, but Needham decided not to follow their lead and remained in the assembly until 1854. The reform press of the time vilified him as a man without principles – a charge that has clung to him ever since.
The government of Edward Barron Chandler apparently rewarded Needham by appointing him, in 1853, to the well-paid post of secretary of the law commission which was drafting revised statutes for the province. His contribution to the consolidation and revision of the statutes was considerable. According to the commissioners, Needham was “most able and valuable. . . . His assistance in the art of condensing has materially tended to the accomplishment of so much of our labours.”
After his move to Fredericton, Needham entered municipal politics and was six times elected mayor between 1856 and 1868. He re-entered provincial politics in 1865 when he became convinced that confederation was a menace. A most effective speaker, he used colour, wit, and ridicule to destroy the arguments of the confederates – especially their idea that New Brunswick manufacturers could exploit the Canadian market. The move towards confederation meant defeat for Needham in 1866, but he was soon elected mayor of Fredericton again. On 19 May 1869 he was successful in a provincial by-election, but he was defeated in the general elections of 1870 and 1874. Few men, he often said, have “been so often beaten at the polls.” On 2 April 1873 he was appointed queen’s counsel.
William Needham deserves better treatment than he has received from the 19th-century liberal historians George Edward Fenety* and James Hannay*. His contributions to municipal government and his work for the law commissioners were of major significance. Perhaps most important, however, was his continuing struggle to advance the public school system of New Brunswick. “Educate your people and make them free,” he cried in the. assembly, “educate the people and make them happy; educate the people and keep them from crime and misery.” For this cause he strove until his death. His interests did not stop with the public school system. He also gave continuing support to King’s College as a public institution, and throughout the 1840s and 1850s the college needed friends. It had become the despised symbol of the privileged in the eyes of anti-establishment reformers such as Albert James Smith*. In 1854 Smith spearheaded a drive to abolish the institution and the outcome was still uncertain when Needham delivered his stirring “speech that saved the college,” concluding that “the institution owed its want of success in a great measure to the hostile measures brought forward in the House year after year instead of assisting it by the proper application of their united individual intellect.”
The ordinary people, with whom Needham sympathized, were never forgotten. In his last major speech in the assembly, he spoke in opposition to the practice of imprisonment for debt in a “speech which for earnestness, pathos and masterly eloquence has seldom if ever, been surpassed on the floor of the legislature.”
Needham was typical of the politicians of the time who were unable to accept the partisanship of the party system that was evolving during his career. He chose his sides and causes for personal rather than party reasons. This attitude guaranteed him enemies, but even they regarded William Needham as a man of “wonderful versatility and ability.”
N.B. Museum, Marriage register B, 1828–38. Fenety, Political notes and observations; “Political notes,” Progress (Saint John, N.B.), 1894 (collected in a scrapbook in N.B. Museum and PAC). Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), 30 Sept. 1874. Morning Freeman (Saint John, N.B.), 1, 6 Oct. 1874. New Brunswick Reporter (Fredericton), 30 Sept. 1874. Saint John Daily News, 30 Sept. 1874. Can. part. comp., 1869. James Hannay, History of New Brunswick, II; The life and times of Sir Leonard Tilley: being a political history of New Brunswick for the past seventy years (Saint John, N.B., 1897). Lawrence, Judges of New Brunswick (Stockton), 502. K. F. C. MacNaughton, The development of the theory and practice of education in New Brunswick, 1784–1904: a study in historical background, ed. with intro. A. G. Bailey (University of New Brunswick Hist. Studies, I, Fredericton, 1947).